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How To Properly Scan a Photograph (And Get An Even Better Image)

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Somewhere in your home, there’s a box of old analog photographs you probably want digital copies of. Unless you know how to use your scanner correctly, the image quality can turn out poor. Here’s how to get the best results.

If your memories are important to you, then it’s worth taking the time to do them right. Today we’re going to look at the largely overlooked tools and methods that’ll give you the best possible quality out of a scan of a less than perfect photo. We’ll see how to make the most of the scanning software and how to use graphics programs to make the image look better than the original photograph. Keep reading!

Starting Out With the Basics: Windows Fax and Scan

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Because every scanner driver is different, we’ll be starting out today with “Windows Fax and Scan,” a program included with Windows 7 that will scan for you even if you don’t have any other program to capture images. Once we’ve covered the basics here, we’ll take a look at the Epson Scan program that comes with most Epson scanners. This is a fairly common program and should give you an idea of the kind of fine tuning you can do with the software bundled with your scanner.

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Windows Fax and Scan is a basic, stripped down program that will perform the most basic functions of scanning if you can’t get your scanner driver to work or haven’t installed it.

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The program is a pretty basic one. We won’t insult your intelligence and tell you how to use the “Preview” and “Scan” buttons, as most things are fairly straightforward in this program.

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Your options are pretty threadbare. 300 DPI is a good pixel density to scan at for printing. And while the difference between “Color” and “Grayscale” is obvious, keep in mind that “Black and White” is actually a single color mode. All edges will be jaggy, and no anti-aliasing is allowed. This is a good mode for scanning line drawings, but horrid for photos. Use color or grayscale for best results.

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Modern scanners are very well engineered to replicate a good image straight out of the box. But there are several mistakes being made here. Let’s take a look.

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Straightening photographs smears the pixels and can result in a loss of resolution, so scan your photographs square to the edge of the flatbed lip. In addition to this, since we’re going to learn about making adjustments pre-scan, we’re going to only scan one image at a time. It’s more or less impossible to properly adjust three images at a time. They’ll have drastically different shadows, highlights, and midtones—even the automatic adjustments made by the scanner will likely be more accurate if images are scanned one at a time.

(Author’s note: Not everyone is going to appreciate the difference in quality that requires scanning photos individually. If you’re not patient enough to do them one at a time, this how to may not be for you.)

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Save your file in a lossless format. JPG is not ideal as it is lossy. TIFF or PNG are the best formats as they compress the image file without creating artifacts or destroying the image quality. If you can help it, only use JPG to email files, never to archive them.

Advanced Scanning: Using Your Scanner’s Driver

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Usually, these drivers start out in a “Home,” “Basic,” or “Office” mode for beginners. The professional mode gives you more options and isn’t that intimidating.

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There are a lot of various options, most of which will be okay set to default.

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If you have the option to scan in 24bit color, it’s your best bet. Most graphics files are 24-bit color, so we’ll start there. You also likely have greater options for pixel density, although a photo scan higher than 300 DPI is almost a waste of your time. The exception to this is if you’re doing enlargements.

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The basic preview and scan buttons work as normal here, so we will be skipping right to the more technical parts.

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Here’s where it pays off—your scanner driver should have some buttons that adjust levels and saturation. Making these before the scan can greatly improve image quality.

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The basic idea is this: you can scan with default settings and make big adjustments in Photoshop or GIMP. But those edits are destructive to the image. They basically take the information already inside the image and stretch and squeeze it, throwing away detail. When you make adjustments to a histogram before you scan, you begin with a full value range without any tones that have been tossed out by a graphics program. This is why it’s not a good idea to scan multiple images at once—making precise adjustments with the scanner driver is impossible with multiple photos in the scanner bed.

If you have no idea how to use tools like the levels tool in the scanner, you can brush up by reading about how to adjust contrast like a pro.

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Again, save your file in a lossless format. JPG is lossy. Lossy is bad. TIFF or PNG are the best formats without creating artifacts or harming the image quality. Remember, never use JPG to archive or print images, only to email them or upload them. Printing from JPG will result in an inferior print compared to an original lossless PNG or TIFF.

Improving Scans With Photoshop (Or GIMP)

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Photoshop, GIMP, or a comparable graphics program should be your last step in your scan. Here you can use tools like the “Selective Color” to make adjustments to repair problems with the original photograph that show up in the scan. You may want to “de-vintage” your images, using the Selective Color tool (in Photoshop: Image > Adjustments > Selective Color) and adjusting certain color and value ranges selectively.

In this example, you can see how we set our “colors” sample to “Blacks,” then increased black and removed some of the blue haze from the darks in the image. We can also use this same tool to adjust the apparent white balance of the image, removing the yellow cast in the highlights and midtones.

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Another option is to open the file in Lightroom, RAW Therapee, or Adobe Camera Raw (shown above.) If you have Photoshop, you can open any photo in camera raw by going to File > Open As and opening your scan as a Raw file. This can allow you to set a more accurate white point than the Selective Color tool, and also allows you the wealth of fairly complex tools in Camera Raw (or other comparable programs.)

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Lots of additional improvements can be made after the scan to make the image perfect. For help getting your image to look as good as possible, check out our previous how-tos on adjusting contrast like a pro, adjusting color like a pro, how to use a histogram, and how to use freeware Raw Therapee to adjust Raw files (as well as scans). You may also be interested in the easy How-to Geek method on removing dust and scratches from scans.


Are you a scanner master and think you have some great advice to share? Let us know in the comments, or send your thoughts or questions to ericgoodnight@howtogeek.com. They may be featured in a future How-To Geek Graphics article.

Image Credits: Photos of the author’s family, names and copyright information withheld. Any reuse of these images is a violation of the photographer’s copyright and intergalactic law.

Eric Z Goodnight is an Illustrator and Graphics Geek who hopes to make Photoshop more accessible to How-To Geek readers. When he’s not headbanging to heavy metal or geeking out over manga, he’s often off screen printing T-Shirts.

  • Published 03/22/12

Comments (30)

  1. r

    …if possible & available scan the negative instead using much of the info provided here. This will give you much more flexibility in editing in Photoshop or Light-Room.

  2. Dwight Hoyes

    Good article. Here are a couple more options. First and foremost purchase VueScan (hamrick.com) currently in version 9. It comes in 2 flavours; Standard and Pro. Standard is $39.95 while Pro is $79.95.The difference in the 2 versions is pretty significant but the Standard version will provide excellent results unless you want to create raw files, ICC profiles and do IT8 calibration. The Pro also gives you unlimited upgrades. The other worthwhile purchase is a book called The VueScan Bible by Sacha Steinhoff. It is available on Amazon for as low as $19.99 and is well worth the price at any level.

  3. Emily

    Any suggestions on how to effectively clean a scanner’s glass. Mine has gotten quite dusty and has some dog hairs stuck to the glass that show up in larger prints.

  4. victor schrader jr.

    Excellant asistance Thank’s

  5. VB

    Great Tut, glad I found ya!

  6. Reatha

    I have been scanning pictures for many years, but today, I learned more from your tips. Thanks

  7. JAy

    Why not scan at 600 DPI?

  8. Johnny Megabyte

    I don’t have a scanner, but have made digital copies of my old pictures (on-going project) by using the Macro function of my digital camera 12MP. Works nice, too.
    I would prop the picture under a lamp, but no direct light from the lamp goes onto the picture, to not have a glare. This technique adds a bit more light than the room light available.
    Secondly, you may need to take a few shots, in case your hand moves. This might be resolved with a small dollar store tripod, which is now on my “To Do List” to buy on the week-end.
    What else works with this technique …. pictures of kids artwork, digitizing your tax return, snail mail bills, and interesting enough, I wrote a letter by hand, took a picture and e-mailed it. I have also took pictures of my song lyrics, and suggested to a friend to take pictures of all the pages in her Poem book. Another time, I was teaching someone how to play guitar, and got a phone call.. How Do I play these chords … wrote them down by hand, took a picture and posted them on Facebook, and tagged her.
    Mind you my cellphone only has 1.2MP camera, but I have taken a picture of some screen shots, business cards, Google Map directions, a typed up phone list, etc, and now have easy access to them, when needed.

  9. Sonic 1992

    Be VERY careful when using “Air Dusters” to remove dust from the scanner bed, After scanning a THOUSAND images, I found the damn duster emitted a liquid on the scanner bed, and image after image, the same liquid stain was in every picture…. creating extra hours of photoshop work removing the same mark from all the pictures. Use Invisible Glass to clean the bed and wipe with microfiber towel, twice to make sure dry.

  10. Oldtimer88

    Great, great article. But it created an important question for me: I have over 1000 old Kodak 35mm framed slides and my daughter is demanding that I make digital copies,,,,
    First ***: my scanner does not have any background light on the flatbed cover
    Second ***: I was planning to scan as many as possible on the glass each time. You brought the subject of proper alignment for scanning,,,, that froze my idea and created the need for this question,,,,
    Third ***: my cousin has a 20 year old HP scanner with a lighted flatcover, but I would have to find somebody or a place to repair it, has been broken for more than 10 years… Is it the ONLY solution at hand for me???? Thanks for your suggestions and replies. ron.dacosta@gmail[.]com

  11. TheMerricat

    Oldtimer88 – cheaper slide scanners can be had in the range of $50-$100 and are specifically designed for the process. I’d suggest considering how much time and effort you are willing to put into the project as it sounds as if your two current options may cost you more than that simply in time and labor.

  12. TheMerricat

    JAy – photo paper has a max resolution to it, scan any higher and you aren’t getting a better picture, you are just getting to see the grain of the paper. Is it really worth the extra time between scanning at 300 and scanning at 600 if the only improvement you get is the ability to see the dyes?

  13. NeutralVelocity

    Great article. Thanx!

    @ Sonic 1992
    Thanks. I’ll be sure to do a white test scan, then a black test, after cleaning.

    @Emily
    Best short tut I found was here…
    http://howto.cnet.com/8301-11310_39-20093883-285/how-to-clean-your-scanner-glass/

  14. Ushindi

    @Oldtimer88:
    I have a $100 HP Scanjet g3110 that has a slide holder specifically for scanning slides (I also have boxes and boxes of slides, as well as numerous rotary trays filled for my old Kodak Carousel). However, the resulting scan of a slide does NOT produce anywhere near the quality or sharpness of the same slide beamed to a screen (I look at my scans on a 40″ Samsung).
    Possibly a much more expensive scanner would make a difference, or spending large amounts of time on each slide scan per the article – yes, hard to do with 1000s of the little devils.
    Anyway, if you’re content just to have a digital copy not quite as good as the original, a scanner like mine just may be the answer. Check the description at HP.

  15. Sherri

    I have a mac does that matter, since the program is called Windows Fax and Scan?

  16. Barbara

    Thanks so much. No matter how much you know, one can always glean something from your articles. I love and appreciate your graphics/photoshop/photography tutorials.

  17. Sandip Tambe

    Thanx!!!

  18. Doug

    I have a reasonably good slide/negative scanner and a zillion slides/negatives that I have been putting off for a couple years.

    Does anybody have any suggestions on how to deal with dust on slides?
    It’s not as much a problem with negatives in protective sleeves, but slides can be terrible.

    Years ago there was a brush with a radioactive element that was supposed to neutralize the static charge and make it easier to remove the dust.

  19. SJ

    For the dust buy a Zerostat. Although it is a little pricy it works well and also good for eliminating dust on photographs. A clean microfibre cloth is also a necessity. You will NEVER get all the dust though.
    There is no reason to scan at 600 dpi but there is also no reason not to scan at 300 dpi. The difference is marginal. Keep in mind that DPI is a measure for printed output. I also agree with the guy above: if you have the negative scan that not the print. The results are significantly better. Also you should scan as a TIFF file at a minimum. Even better is RAW-TIFF or RAW-DNG. Never, never scan as a JPG unless storage is your primary criteria. Post-scan editing/tweaking is a must and TIFF/DNG provide much greater flexibility.
    If you are doing a lot of scans then rule number one is to buy the best scanner you can afford. There is as significant difference in both final quality and the software that comes with different scanners. There are a lot of good comparisons on the internet. It just requires some time and effort.
    Another suggestion if you are planning to do a lot of scanning; do your homework first! Then take the time to learn your scanner and your software in detail before you start your serious scanning. This will save you a lot of grief in the long run.

  20. Doug

    SJ,
    Thanks for the info about the Zerostat. At $100, I’ll have to think if anyone but me would care about the results. There are other uses for the Zerostat that make it something I should have. I’ve got plenty of microfiber cloths, large and small. My Dyson vacuum is supposedly good at not recycling dust, so a good vacuuming of the surrounding area should probably be the first thing I do before I start in earnest.

  21. SuAlfons

    @Sherri: On your Mac use a program called “Digital Images” (surprise!) to interface your scanner.

    Alas, my clumsy HP Officejet does not allow for very much more than selecting the resolution. (But it’s more of a fax than an artistic printer :-)

  22. Tug

    Has anybody tried projecting slides onto a screen and taking photo’s of them?

  23. r

    @Doug

    Another idea I’ve used for cleaning slides in some extreme cases, primarily due to the fact that much dust collects on the film around the inside frame of the slide , is to completely remove the cardboard frame (with care). This will leave you with a film positive that will be easier to clean & is accessible to a scanner neg tray. Replacement plastic slide frames can be found (to slide the film back in place to preserve them).

  24. Brad

    PNG is just as lossy as JPG, so save in TIFF to prevent compression artifacts being introduced into the files. However, both PNG and JPG have high-quality modes that preserve more information, but still reduce file size. Also, on Mac OS X, the included Preview app has a scan tool built-in (File> Import from Scanner).

  25. kim

    Not to higjack the thread, but – I have some helpful tips!

    I have an Epson V600 that was refurbished at Epson, they allowed me to purchase a 2 year replacement guarantee for anything that goes wrong with it (other than the cats gnawing on the cords, or me spilling Coke Zero on it, or me tossing out the window due to my own frustration regarding my own stupidity)

    It originally is a 200$ scanner that I got for 79$ PLUS 29$ for shipping (that, I got robbed on the price..) then 39.95$ for 2 year full replacement guarantee. This scanner is the bomb. Max output is 9600×6400, this is probably large enough for 99% of you guys out there.

    I would have gotten the V700, but, it was over 200$ more. Epson always has refurbished goodies. It is hit and miss though to find what you want. If I had the disposable $, I would have gotten the V700.

    However, my scanner is delicious. Pretty dang quick and produces great quality scans. The only draw back is that if you have alot of slides / negatives, it can only do 1 strip of negatives at a time, (if they are cut in the standard 5 negative strip) and also 5, 35 MM slides. Yes, a holder comes for both slides and negs.

    The scanning bed size is: 8 3/4 x 12 (or A4 size) so it’s good for up to medium sized images. I am bummed out that I cant scan larger goodies though. Even though it cant scan large sizes, I can use Photoshop and healing tool skills and content aware fill, so me thinks those issues can be fixed.

    The Epson software SUCKS.Even though it has software called Digital ICE software to remove scratches and dust. I tried it once and never used it again. I don’t even recall HOW to use it, all I remember is that it didn’t work. (who knows, perhaps I didnt use it right?)

    Perhaps, I am just used to Lightroom and Photoshop. (but, only use Photoshop for cloning, healing, and content aware fill. I also use on a REGULAR basis are the awesome and awesomely expensive actions from http://www.florabellacollections.com (I have hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of dollars invested in Florabella actions, however, with ONE shoot the actions paid themselves off with the sales I made on images alone.

    Florabella has capitalized on the popular ‘look’ that is out right now, the cool thing is that she made more than 100 original actions which can be layered and combined with one another to create totally original and an unlimited amount of looks, they work great with scanned images too. You should go check out her her new retouch workflow actions. These save sooooooo much time on skin and eye editing. I am talking several hours in one shoot alone. You aren’t always blessed with folks with a 15 year old girls skin with no acne and no wrinkles and bright non-blood shot eyeballs!

    Erica, thank you very much for the tip. I will check to see if I can adjust the histogram first. I don’t remember seeing that when scanning. Although it’s been 6 months since i’ve scanned last. That makes total sense.

    If I screw it up, then, just rescan!

    Here are the V600 reviews from PCMAG

    http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2355184,00.asp

    Here is the V700 review from PCMAG

    http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,1931744,00.asp

  26. bob

    So 15 pages to say, adjust the colors before scanning.

    I think you could do multiple photos at once if they all share the same flaws, which they probably do. Just turn up the saturation before scanning, then you’ll have more information to work with in photoshop.

  27. Mark

    No one ever mentions The Microsoft Office, Picture Manager, which I use from Office, 2003, and 2007.
    I scan, B+W pictures/newspapers in grayscale, and color pictures/newspapers at -302 brightness/+302 contrast, at 300 DPI, and then edit using the 5 bars. To start, I lighten +10-20 first, contrast +20-30, adjust mid tones to taste, -10 light, +20 dark. Then try the auto-correct to see if it shows better, then Edit to undo auto correct if necessary. Cropping, resizing, red eye removal, rotating and flipping,compressing,and color modifying, are also possible. It’s no Photoshop, but you can get the best out of a picture!
    I hate the HP installation disc, and all the extra junk, but of course it looks like I’ll have to use it, in order to work with negatives, using the HP4850, (4800 series driver).
    I crash a lot of old drives, so on the XP re-install, I normally install HP with the Windows XP Wizard, automatically from the web (patience! give it time! ), and run it from the start menu My Computer,and/ or create a “short-cut to desktop” icon. Open, Right click, and Get picture using Scanner Wizard.

  28. Peter H

    If you are thinking of scanning more than 10 slides, it would probably be easier and better to find a service which does this. I would guess most cities have these service agencies who specialize in what they do and the more you do, the cheaper it gets. You get back a CD which the images you want in the format you want as well as your slides. I’ve seen web services but……….

    Even a pro slide scanner like the old Nikons take about 15 minutes to scan, adjust, rescan, etc but give pro results. They can be bought not too expensively and should come with software which eliminates scratches and dust (thus the extra time for 3 scans per slide). Drivers can be found on afficionado sites. I found a German one with an English page for describing the process to adapting a driver. Nikon no longer supports these scanners (boo!) even though they were very expensive and doesn’t even provide old drivers. Cheap slide scanners are just that.

    Using your camera on macro to make photos has been suggested but I’ve found the results iffy unless you know what you are doing. Some prosumer cameras still have barrel distortion and I was advised to use the telephoto setting instead. Then too, if you use tele, back off the highest zoom as lenses again suffer from distortion. Lighting can be a problem if photos are behind glass.

    The short response to using a monitor for looking at your images is that your eyes and brain react differently to transmitted versus reflected light. If you do the math, you’ll find your monitor is around 72 dpi which is just good enough for newspaper photos. Don’t use it to judge quality.

    There is an excellent little scanner called FlipPal which is entirely portable and is placed on the photo/image/picture/object and has a moving scan bar so your object doesn’t have to move. It is the only scanner allowed into the National Archives. It is only designed for 4″x6″ photos but comes with excellent stitching software and a clear bottom so you can overlap as much as you need. Glass does not phase it. It runs on batteries and creates a file on a SDHC card. Great at reunions and parties since you don’t have to take the photos home. Genealogists love it for doing documents and photos when they travel.

    Sorry about the length but there are many misconceptions about digital images, software and computers floating around and it is sad when people can’t copy their “analog” photos properly or spend hours without success.

  29. gdv

    @kim (and other interested readers):

    FYI: Looks like the proper URL for Florabella is http://www.florabellacollection.com (i.e., without the “s”).

  30. E. W.

    I thought you were going to tell me how to get more out of my All-in-wonder scanner/printer scan feather on my HP Photo Printer/scanner. The scanner sucks big time. The scanning program is very very basic, as basic as the Windows Fax/scanner. So it’s a toss up.

    My old scanner had all the bells and whistles and I loved it. I could enlarge those little 2×3 old photos and actually see who was in them! I can’t seem to do that with this ‘basic’ scanner.

    Next Printer/Scanner.. will be separate hardware.

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